Grace to you!
Yesterday, I told a story of Fr. Donald Calloway, who received the grace of conversion in a wonderful way and is a popular speaker across the USA, preaching Divine Mercy. You may want to read his story.
He reminds me of numerous others who have received the gift of conversion too. I remember when I had my moment, at the age of 14 years and a half. The experience has remained fresh in my mind.
What is conversion and how can people be converted?
I get this or similar questions many times, especially from people who want their loved ones who have not known Christ to be converted. Or those who have been entrapped in some wrong choices that ruin their lives and happiness, or those who have people in similar situations. They seem to want an automatic conversion experience.
Sometimes, they request; “Father, we want you to talk to him so he can get converted.” You may have also heard some preachers say, “I converted so and so … a number of people in my parish … or during an event at such and such a place.”
Such expressions get it completely wrong. No human being, no matter how holy or great a preacher is, can convert people. It’s impossible. Conversion is by God’s grace.
Look at the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), a beautiful conversion story. In that story, and the steps it took for Zacchaeus to encounter Christ, are good sources of information for anyone who really wants to know biblical and Church teaching about conversion.
Zacchaeus is described as the Chief Tax Collector and a very wealthy man. In the bible, only in this story is the concept “Chief Tax Collector” applied to the job of tax collectors. It likely suggests he was in-charge of other tax collectors – they rendered account to him, and he directly to the Roman Governor.
So, if the tax collectors where regarded as terrible public sinners because of their “unpatriotic” job (and for many, fraudulent activities – at least, based on the way a typical Jew during the time of Jesus saw it), then the Chief Tax Collector must have been regarded as a sinner Number 1.
Apart from this bad public image, this tax collector saw himself in need of conversion. He wanted to meet Jesus. He was very wealthy, yet he felt a deep lack. Conversion begins with a sense of need – a sense of our own insufficiency stirred from within by God’s grace. Zacchaeus felt this insufficiency.
I have mentioned a sense of insufficiency, but actually the first step in conversion is God, Christ Jesus, extending an invitation of his love and mercy to any person, with a grace-filled and grace-led flourish.
In the case of Zacchaeus, Jesus was passing by as he always does. And as he does, he dispenses his grace to as many as need him. In this case, Zacchaeus was drawn into it. How?
Through the rumors or the crowd trooping to see Jesus, Zacchaeus felt the one who could satisfy his need was around the corner. He heard the news about Jesus from people. Here is where the act of preaching, our presence as believers, or the works of love and mercy, as well as the worship of believers, play a role in the act of conversion.
As I said in the beginning, no one can convert a person – only God can. You may therefore ask, “Of what use then is evangelization, preaching or talking to others about Christ if only God converts?”
Our prayers, words, testimonies, opportunity for pilgrimages, actions, etc., provide the setting, environment or suggestive aura through which a person is exposed to Divine Touch. As you may have already known, God uses human agents to draw people to God-self. We are mere instruments of God’s encounter with God’s people.
See how that journey plays out in the life of Zacchaeus. Having being stirred from within by the power of God’s grace due to the awareness of Zacchaeus insufficiency, he desires to see Jesus. As he was making the human effort, including climbing the tree to make up for his short stature, Jesus was already searching for him.
Remember, his short stature could be spiritually read to represent how shorthanded, incapable, and utterly insufficient our power is to know Christ and fall in love with him. We can’t.
As Zacchaeus was up on the sycamore, simply to catch a glimpse of Jesus, Jesus came to him and called on him to come down. Such an invitation blew him away. The “come down quickly” is the divine hand of grace caressing the heart that is high or deep in sin, with the gentle aroma of mercy, compassion and reconciliation.
Next was an unbelievable surprise: “I will come and dine with you today.”
Often, in our insufficiency we long simply for something good, something saving and something satisfying. We don’t know how much or how good, we simply want something different. Jesus comes with something beyond our expectation. He comes and dines with us. Consider, as an example, what happens within your heart when you receive Jesus at the Eucharist. Amazing!
Conversion is when a heart is completely changed, so transformed that the Church calls it metanoia – 180 degree turn, repentance. This turn takes place when Jesus takes charge. Then, the peace the person is searching for is stacked within so much so, often there are tears of joy, the joy of redemption. Then, again stirred by grace, the act of restitution (making amends) is undertaken freely by the convert. In the case of Zacchaeus: “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” This first experience of conversion is called radical or first conversion.
Then begins another step, the journeying-with-Jesus-experience, what the Church calls “ongoing conversion” or secondary conversion (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1427-1428). Some spiritual writers call it interior life. The sacraments of the Church, especially Confession and the Eucharist, and the Word of God in Scripture, accompany us in this journey, sustaining us with the graces we need to move from favor to favor, from one degree of glory to another.
Are there people around you in need of conversion? How about praying that Christ will touch their hearts to fall in love with him? Knowing Jesus and living in him, being part of his body is salvation.
Falling in love with Christ by the power of his grace changes everything, including those thought of as irredeemable. God doesn’t give up on us!
God’s word speaks to us from the Book of Wisdom 11:23: “But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people's sins that they may repent.”
I pray the grace of conversion and ongoing conversion may be abundant for our loved ones and for us. Amen.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
Author and Goal
Father Maurice Emelu PhD., provides a daily blog of reflections based on the Scriptural readings of the day from the Catholic liturgical calendar. The goal is to teach, inspire, encourage, and foster healing through the grace of God's word. They are written in a language that is appropriate for a general audience. You will find these reflections helpful for your spiritual growth, inspiration, and developing your thoughts. They may also be useful for ministers in preparing their sermons for liturgical celebrations.